The Half-Marathon Row

You know when you decide to do some insane task because you think it could be achievable with a little effort, and then you start doing it only to realize it was more insane than you thought?

I decided to give the 15k row a go just over two months ago. Not a lot of prep time, sure, but I figured achievable. During my training I thought I might end the long distance rowing with a half-marathon row, just to prove that I could handle it. I never intended to race a half-marathon.

Early in the morning I opted to adjust the foot stretchers in the rented Fluidesign one notch back to try and prevent the tracks from rubbing the backs of my legs. They were hitting the day before and I hoped moving them back would prevent this from happening while preserving my reach. I had the worst time getting the bow card to slide into the slot and had to find someone else to pry it into place. I suited up with the borrowed water pack, shoved an open bag of pretzels and a Starburst into the pocket, and stuffed my seat pad in the back of my trou.

The meeting ran late. I stopped for one last use of the restroom before running back to the boat. A golf cart and a sideways Fluidesign 2x blocked the boathouse door, along with a fleet of 8’s just outside the doors. I didn’t want to navigate the maze in the rented boat solo, but I struggled to find someone to help me carry it. Everyone around was busy prepping for their own rows. Finally, a Stetson rower helped me find a free cox’n to navigate the maze. We had to zigzag our bodies through the 8’s and I held the 1x high overhead in one hand, oars in the other, to avoid clashing riggers. Consequently, I launched 10 minutes late.

It was a gorgeous morning of flat water and clear skies. The regatta director advertised the row to the start as 2k. This is not true. It’s 3k. I warmed up following the lake shore and using my mirror to navigate. I turned into new waters into the channel, hoping I was heading the right way as no other rowing boats were on the water with me at that moment. I spied some sort of rower far ahead up the channel and sighed in relief.

The regatta director said the start was near Hontoon’s Landing, which was easy to find due to the massive sign and the small marina. Two kids in a canoe paddled straight into my path. I tried to go around, but they valiantly paddled harder into my path. I admired their vain efforts to get out of my way, but I had to stop rowing to let them figure out where they were going versus where I was going.

I kept looking for some sign of a start. I saw a tall pontoon boat in my mirror and thought I’d finally arrived. Nope, just a houseboat cruising my way. Still onward to go. Finally I spied a small coach launch with two people hanging out by a marker I knew I’d arrived.

I took a moment to situate everything. Knowing I was late, I’d hastily jumped in the boat and taken off hoping to catch the 1x’s and avoid the 8’s so I’d have clear water for a little while.  All the 1x’s were gone, so I’d have to row alone.  I looped my dry bag around the stroke coach, stuffed the pretzels down further in the pocket, and tucked a loop that had been rubbing my right arm into another pocket. I sucked water. Adjusted my hat. Pressed start.  Started going.

The first 3k were fine, even with all the twists and turns. I had good boat speed, the Fluid was gurgling, I avoided logs, branches, and lily pads even on the hairpin curves. A men’s 2x sailed up to me and we took a turn together, me on the inside and sweetly making the 90-degree turn to starboard. I got a little off track and we nearly collided, but I got it back together.

My sunglasses began fogging up. The first youth men’s 8+ charged into view around a turn. They passed on an open stretch of water with no problems. A second 8+ was chasing their tail and passed by as well. The course started to narrow and I couldn’t see a point anymore. The bow ball vanished into the white condensation of my lenses. I stopped and dropped my sunglasses into the boat. I’d have to rely on turning to look.

And then the problems began.

Trying to line myself up for a tight inside turn with two men’s 8+’s approaching, I ran smack into a patch of lily pads. My oar stuck into the weeds and twisted the bow deeper into their grasp. All forward motion stopped. The first 8+ appeared around the turn, their starboard oars stuck in the water to make it. I looked around. The channel here was narrow, but I had no choice. I had to back out of the weeds as they continued towards me.

We took the turn together, me on the tight inside and them on the outside. Behind me was an island of weeds. I could go inside or outside, but the inside had patches of river weeds. I chose the outside and rowed at full pressure hoping to pass the weeds before them and scoot back to port to give them more space. Instead, I got stuck. Again.

And so the fun continued. The youth men 8+’s kept rowing up, leaving me with few channel choices and a trail of dirty water of row in. The inner nag kept saying, “Why are you rowing in all this dirty water? It’s only slowing you down; you know better.” I thought of a cox’n out at Miami Beach who loves to make crews race in trails of chopped up wake.

Another men’s 8+ came up to me as the channel narrowed. I was hemmed in by algae growth and white oars. Left with no other choice, I slowed down just as a coach’s launch started screaming at me, “Look out!” A fisherman’s boat had turned around the 90-degree bend out of nowhere and was heading straight at me. I had no place to go–weeds to the right, 8+ on the left. I stuck my starboard oar into the water to make my bow turn away from the fisherman’s bow and pulled my port in as far as I could without tipping over. He turned himself into the green muck, making our collision a glancing bow instead of a head on.

I stopped to let the 8+ make the sharp turn. Over my shoulder, the Edgewater and one Sarasota Crew 8 had gone the wrong way and were backing down the even narrower channel.

Finally the course opened back into a river wide enough to fit two 8’s comfortably side-by-side. The men charged ahead and kept to the inside. The coach’s launch finally passed me (they’d been afraid of waking me and even though I insisted they go because they were messing up my time, they wouldn’t go!)

A cox’n shouted, “Hey! Boat!”

Two 8+’s had turned and were heading back at us. I slowed down. The boys in one 8+ started waving at a launch.

“It’s a dead end,” They were shouting. “There’s no way out!”

I laughed. Somehow we missed the turn. One coach’s launch zoomed ahead to check out the path ahead. I opted to stay put and see if I could figure it out using the map from the race packet and the map on the rowing app. Another launch puttered by.

“We’re close,”I said. “It’s got to be around here somewhere!”

“Do you have the map?” He asked.

“On my phone.”

“Does it show the canal?”

“No, but the hand drawn one does.”

It took a few minutes but someone finally spotted the hidden Manatee Slow Wake sign obscured in the Florida swamp that marked the entrance to a narrow canal with jutting trees and dangling moss. We’d rowed a fair distance past it. I turned around just as the women’s 8+’s showed up to join the fracas of eight 8+’s and some small boats trying to queue up for this canal.

I chased the coach’s launch through and used the slow going to shove pretzels and the starburst into my mouth.

By this point, it was 8k in. The backs of my legs were feeling the constant prodding of the tracks. I’d adjusted how I pushed off the footplate to try and alleviate some of the poking. The skin on my right hand was already tender. I’d only taped my left thumb after the previous head race.

We cleared back into the St. John’s River. Now the course was wide, if winding, and chopped up with a head wind. I sighed and forced myself to lean back into the head wind. One stroke at a time. The women’s 8+’s caught back up.  The third one took a while to pass, but in the meantime the cox’n was blaring music through the cox box and the girls were singing along and laughing as they rowed past. I appreciated the musical interlude until their tunes faded away.

The rest of the time became a blur as I entered survival mode. My steering zig-zagged down the winding course. I missed a houseboat and some trees. I tried adding pressure, but the boat slowed down, which annoyed me immensely. The head wind pissed me off, the tracks eating into my legs, the lancing pain in my hands, my sloppy blade work. The inner nag picked on my inability to keep my port oar off the water, then the starboard, and the port.  A Stetson 2x was waiting for me and was leading the way in. They made me believe I was the last boat in, which humiliated me. Their presence made it worse because they glided along so effortlessly and here I was, a cow in a row boat, plodding along so slowly. The 15k mark came and went on my app and I sunk deeper into a depression. I started counting again, but instead of stroking better, each number seemed to make my technique worse, my power less.

I thought, “I should’ve been weightlifting.”

“Boy, you suck.”

“This is going to hurt.”

“Power 10.”

“What? I went from 10 kph to 9kph? What the heck?”

Finally I spotted 8’s sitting on the water waiting for space to open on the dock. The end was near. The finish boat came into sight. I let the oars coast on the water, disappointed in myself for how I rowed in the last 5k of the course.

Getting out of the boat required serious effort. The regatta director gave me the strangest look as I let out a serious moan as I straightened up my legs and back.

“Sorry,” I said. “But everything hurts. Could you help with the boat?”

“I’ll get the boat, you get your oars,” He said. He slung the Fluidesign up on his head and head off. I turned to follow and winced. My legs had seized up and I vainly attempted hobbling after the boat but could only manage baby steps. Another humiliation after my row.

My app revealed I’d rowed 21k. Only then did I feel a bit better about how I’d done. I thought of celebrating my 15k training with a 21k row during the week. Now I’d practically raced it, even if it was a miserable, terrible, no-good row on my part. I had accomplished the task I’d set out to do.

Sitting down hurt, but for a post-row pancake and sausage breakfast it was worth it. Other adult scullers came by, but I was too ravenous to speak only drops of syrup and orange seeds remained.

Overall, I came in second by twenty seconds. That’s the way it goes, I guess. That twenty seconds could be anywhere-getting stuck in the weeds, or lost, or hitting the boat, or poor navigation in the last 5k, or oars constantly thwacking the water.  My right hand has blisters in new, exciting places, my left hamstring is still tight enough to play a Concerto in D, and my calves bear proud patches of Indian rug burns. But I finished.

The wounds from the tracks rubbing into my legs, two days later.

The wounds from the tracks rubbing into my legs, two days later.

It’s too early for me to decide if I will attempt the row again next year. It actually is a pretty course, and it could be fun, if not for all my mishaps. If I do the course again, I’d definitely add weightlifting into my training. I stopped after Nationals. I need more time to clean up my finishes. I will row a boat that I have practiced in and that is calibrated for me. Not the Fluidesign wasn’t nice, but I had to change my drive because of where the tracks were whacking. I’ll train for the 21 k and not 15k (false advertising!) and make sure I launch on time to get more distance on the 8+’s.

In the last bit of the course, I experienced a rower’s epiphany. Maybe it was the exhaustion, or the frustration, but in the last stretch of the empty course I learned something about myself as a rower. I’ve enjoyed my time in the 1x. Some rows have been lonelier than others, some mind-blowing, or aggravating, and other rows a delight to be on the water. But as a competitive rower, I perform better when I’m not alone. I don’t have that singular, focused drive that makes top tier scullers tick. I give more of myself when someone else is in the boat with me than I do solo. I think it’s about not letting the other person down. I am better at pushing aside the physical discomfort and the pain because it’s for them and I know they’re doing it for me. It’s teamwork.

I needed this time in the 1x. Even though I still have more work to do, my sculling technique has improved tremendously. I balance the boat so much better than I did just three months ago. I’m getting better at rowing on the square in the 1x, something I would have balked before. I mentally needed the change of pace from the intensity that accompanies a competitive 8+. The time on the water reconnecting with my stroke, setting off on my schedule at my pace reset my passion for sport. Physically, my body craved relief from the twisting and torquing of sweep rowing.

I have one more regatta this coming weekend, the Sarasota-Bradenton Head Race. I’ll do my best, try my hardest, but expect my lack of experience, rougher technique, and lack of handicap to work against me.

After that, I’m ready to go fast again. Really fast. With a bunch of fast women ready to dominate Florida’s sprint season.

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About camckenna

I teach; I write; I row.
This entry was posted in Home, Racing, Struggles, Triumphs and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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